Along for the ride: Meet India’s train and plane spotters - Hindustan Times
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Along for the ride: Meet India’s train and plane spotters

ByNatasha Rego
Jun 14, 2024 04:05 PM IST

They stare at the sky, trek miles, befriend drivers, all to get that perfect shot. Who needs a ticket, when you know exactly what’s whooshing past next?

The hum and the roar of an aircraft taking off and landing. The chugging of a train on its tracks. The grinding of a bus engine sputtering to life. These are not what most of us would consider easy listening. But for a select group of transit vehicle enthusiasts, these sounds are no less than music to their ears.

A Boeing 787-8 flies over Dombivli in Thane district, in an image captured by Roshan Rajeev. PREMIUM
A Boeing 787-8 flies over Dombivli in Thane district, in an image captured by Roshan Rajeev.

Roshan Rajeev, 36, who works as an associate manager in healthcare in Mumbai, waits to hear the ground rumble, his eyes peeled for an aircraft soaring overhead. He has captured over 70 aircraft flying over the city in the last six years, including the majestic double-decker Airbus A380 – the largest passenger aircraft manufactured, but never owned by an Indian airline; and the Boeing 747, christened the ‘Queen of the Skies’, which had its last commercial flight with Air India in April.

Rajeev is one of many transit system spotters in India, who make it their mission to spot, photograph, identify and ride on as many buses, trains, metros and planes as possible. All for the sheer love of it.

From time delays to rush hour traffic, these spotters are unfazed by the usual hiccups that plague public transport.

Between 2016 and 2020, Bengaluru’s Rahul S chose to stay 22 km from his engineering college in Somanahalli, just so he could enjoy the 90 minute-bus ride to his college and back. An added perk: he got to change buses along the route. “I had the option of living closer or taking the college bus, but I rejected both,” laughs the 26-year-old who is now an IT executive.

An Ashwamedha Classic high-deck bus in Bengaluru. (@the.busenthusiast)
An Ashwamedha Classic high-deck bus in Bengaluru. (@the.busenthusiast)

Rahul is an admin of the Instagram page @the.busenthusiast, which he runs with his friends Yathish Kumar Saravanan, 25, also an IT executive, and Amogh A, 21, an engineering student. The page features Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) buses that ply on city roads and Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) buses in the state. What they also offer is a glimpse of rarer buses and their routes, with information about their make and models.

From the Volvo 8400 B7R LE model that plies on a newly-introduced route from Vijayanagara to Electronic City, to the Ashok Leyland BS3 (numbered 36B; it can be spotted between the Kempegowda Bus Station and Girinagara 2nd Stage), which is one of the oldest in the city and subject to a 15-year scrapping policy, the bus enthusiasts have documented over 500 such vehicles on Bengaluru’s bumpy roads.

The three of them met in 2022, at the first gathering of Friends of BMTC, a community of fellow bus enthusiasts in the city. It was started to make commuting on Bengaluru’s 6,000-odd bus fleet easier, in the absence of live tracking. Via a Telegram group, with over 2,500 members, moderators chime in with detailed travel plans, bus numbers and the expected time of travel to anyone posing a question.

The three men have come a long way since. Their mission is now focused on spending weekends identifying routes that generally take them out of the city, aiming to experience long journeys from end to end. It’s also a great way, they found, to explore parts of the city they had not been to.

“We particularly like to document the rarer routes that take commuters to the outskirts of the city,” says Amogh. “We go wherever they take us and photograph the buses in the villages,” adds Rahul. Their latest trip took them through a rare route to Hulahalli, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, where they went to photograph the KMS-built Ashok Leyland BS6 BMTC bus.

It’s where the vehicles get adorned with fresh flowers, or where they gain new stickers, all tokens from locals who are passionate about them too.

Looking fly

In Mumbai, Rajeev frequents about ten spots, visiting them twice or thrice a month, to get the best view of planes coming in and out of the city. These include the Mithi River bridge near Bail Bazar, the Ghatkopar Bus Station near Eastern Express Highway, Juhu Beach, and Sagar Vihar in Navi Mumbai, from where he’s had some spectacular sightings.

The Boeing 747, christened Queen of the Skies, was inducted by Air India in 1971. (Above right) A Boeing 747 used by China Airlines Cargo. (HT Archives, Roshan Rajeev)
The Boeing 747, christened Queen of the Skies, was inducted by Air India in 1971. (Above right) A Boeing 747 used by China Airlines Cargo. (HT Archives, Roshan Rajeev)

On his bucket list is a good shot of the Airbus A380, among the largest commercial airliners in the world and only full-length double-deck jet airliner.

“The Airbus A380 is still pending on my bucket list because it usually arrives in Mumbai late at night, around 1 am,” says Rajeev, who plans to capture it soon. For international routes, his preferred location is the Umbarmali Hills near Kasara. “It is amazing to watch and capture the aircraft cruising between 30,000 and 42,000 feet from this spot,” he says.

Full steam ahead

Among the most well-known train spotters in India is Dhanush Chandan, 30, aka @thetrainprem (he has 25,000 followers on Instagram), a resident of Mumbai and native of Kundapur, in Karnataka, who has been photographing India’s trains for over 14 years now. Chandan works as a piping engineer at an oil and gas company. But his heart is set on fulfilling one dream: to travel the length and breadth of the country, via complete return journeys on India’s 15,000-odd passenger trains. He’s been on over 6,000 so far.

“Since we were five, my cousin and I would go and sit near the Kundapur tracks and watch the trains pass by during my summer vacations,” says Chandan. During one of those trips, his train to Mumbai hit a snag before reaching the Kundapur station. Since it was on a single track, the rescue train had to come in from the other direction, recalls Chandan. What struck him first was the sound the rescue locomotive made. “It went chug, chug, chug,” says Chandan. “It was a sound unlike any other automobile.”

The Vatva WDM3A model operating on the Okha-Ernakulam route. (Dhanush Chandhan)
The Vatva WDM3A model operating on the Okha-Ernakulam route. (Dhanush Chandhan)

It helped that his parents gifted him a camera after his 12th board exams, a Fujifilm point and shoot. Over the years, even as he completed his degree in mechanical engineering, Chandan started making friends with the ticket collectors and loco pilots, hoping to learn about India’s diesel trains. He even tried to get a job in the railways, “any job that would let me watch and experience trains was welcome,” he says, but unfortunately, couldn’t make it through the entrance exams.

During the lockdown, he spent a month each in Kashmir, Delhi, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Assam and Gujarat, apart from Maharashtra and Karnataka, working remotely on double shifts to be able to strike more train journeys off his bucket list.

He has since upgraded his gear, to a DSLR, with several lenses, a drone and audio recording equipment to capture the sound of diesel engines. And he is willing to go to any length for the perfect shot. To capture the 18048/Vasco-da-gama to Shalimar Amravati Express, passing in front of the picturesque Dudhsagar waterfalls in Goa, he trekked six km to wait at a viewpoint opposite it. “After all that, you just get about 40 seconds to take your picture,” says Chandan. He got the shot, and many others like it.

Does it ever get lonely? “Rail fanning (as he calls it) has never disappointed me,” he says. “Whenever I start a journey, I travel solo, but I always make many new friends along the way.”

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